By David Willis
---- — The outlook appeared dire for the Andover girls basketball team in its season opener, trailing by seven points with two minutes remaining against a gritty Lowell squad.
Then Jessica Witten spoke up.
“Jessica didn’t panic and called all the girls together,” coach E.J. Perry said. “She said to them, ‘This is how we play Andover basketball. This is how we take over a game.’”
With the game on the line, Witten then stepped on the court and delivered, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers — giving her six for the day — as the clock ticked down to turn the deficit to a lead and eventual Golden Warrior victory.
“It was such a blur,” Witten said. “I was missing shots early, but I just kept shooting and they finally fell. I wanted to lead my team to victory, and I knew I had to step up and hit some shots. I know I have to be a leader and deliver in the clutch.
“In the past we have had Nicole Boudreaus and Devon Caveneys. This year I have to lead my team.”
That is the role Witten is now counted upon to fill.
After two seasons as a backup on the powerhouse Andover basketball team, senior co-captain Witten is now taking on the role of go-to scorer for the Golden Warriors for the 2013-14 season. It’s the role most recently held by Boudreau, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and 1,000-point scorer Caveney.
“(Witten) came through Friday night and I know she will continue to come through this season,” fellow co-captain Rebecca Alois. “She has big shoes to fill, but she is a terrific shooter and hard worker that will do anything that is needed to win a game.”
After playing for the JV team as a freshman, Witten made the Andover High varsity squad for the first time two seasons ago, seeing limited time on the Golden Warrior squad that finished 27-0 and won their third straight Division 1 state title, led by Boudreau and guard Ally Fazio.
“That was really an unbelievable experience,” said Witten, who appeared in 20 games that season and scored 29 points. “Being able to win at the (TD) Garden, then win the title was just amazing. Watching Nicole and Ally and Devon play, I learned so much. I looked up to them.
“Nicole is such an amazing shooter. I love going to see her play at Boston College now. She taught me to just keep shooting. Even if I miss 10 3’s in a row, the next is going in.”
Witten saw increased court time last season, playing in 24 games and averaging 4.0 points, including 12 3-pointers.
“That built up a lot of confidence,” she said. “The team encouraged me to shoot when I was in there, and that prepared me. Then, in the summer (Hoops for Hope) and fall league, I was able to hit some 3’s and I really started to feel confident.”
That confidence was shared by her teammates and coach.
“She came into this season knowing it was her team” said Perry, who won two state titles as boys coach in Salem, N.H. “She is a shooter and I love shooters. She can just shoot the rock. She hits her shots, especially in the clutch.
“But she is also a terrific leader. She is a senior that has seen it all. She has experienced a championship and she, along with Rebecca, have the ability to be amazing leaders.”
Witten showed her abilities as both a leader and player on Friday, scoring a career-high 18 points — her previous best was 11 last season — and knocking down a whopping six 3-pointers, matching Boudreau’s single-game high during her senior season.
“It was just crazy,” said Witten, who was recently accepted to High Point University in North Carolina. “When I am in the zone, I know I have to hit as many shots as I can as quick as I can. I push myself to keep shooting. It is a great feeling. I know I have to play like that and step up this season, not just in the big games but in every game.”
Alois, her longtime teammate and friend, knows she will succeed. “I have been playing basketball with Jessica since the fifth grade when we won our in-town championship together,” Alois said. “She is a knockdown shooter, but is also a tough rebounder and always has my back on defense. I have total confidence in her.”
Change at the top
Witten’s new role as No. 1 scorer isn’t the only change for the Andover girls basketball team. The Golden Warriors are also breaking in a new coach in E.J. Perry.
Perry, the school’s football and boys volleyball coach, who takes over this winter after the retirement of longtime coach Jim Tildsley, who led Andover to four titles and 387 wins in 18 seasons.
“Coach Perry has been amazing so far,” Witten said. “He really knows the game and knows what he is talking about. He is also very inspirational. We love coach Tildsley, but it is working out great so far with coach Perry.”
2012-13 season: 18-7, lost in Division 1 North semifinals
Returning starters: Rebecca Alois, 5-8, Sr., forward
Returning lettermen: Jessica Witten, 5-7, Sr., forward; Erin Nastari, 5-7, Sr., forward; Rachael Cormier, 5-5, Jr., guard; Colleen Caveney, 5-7, Jr., guard
Newcomers: Emily Connors, 5-7, Jr., forward; Aundrea Grieco, 5-7, Jr., forward; Paige Hartnett, 5-5, Jr., guard; Fatouma Kone, 5-10, Jr., center; Julia Perry, 5-4, Jr., guard; Carissa Reming, 5-5, Jr., point guard; Tori Roche, 5-4, Soph., guard; Meghan Stickney, 5-8, Soph., forward; Alyssa Casey, 5-10, Frosh., forward; Jillian Webber, 5-9, Frosh., forward
Captains: Rebecca Alois, Jessica Witten, Erin Nastari
Returning honorees: Rebecca Alois, MVC All-Star
Assistants: Christine Kuchar, Leo Lafond (JV), Kerri O’Dea (freshmen)